Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Trojans


Philip Purser-Hallard Trojans (2016)
I promised myself I'd re-read the first two before tackling Trojans, the conclusion of the trilogy and the thickest of the three. The book is heavily populated with a fair few interwoven narrative strands to follow, and I really wanted to go in prepared so as to get the most out of my reading; but in the end, with the to be read pile presently towering above me at a little over fifty titles, I thought fuck it and just went right ahead.

Philip Purser-Hallard's Devices trilogy inhabits a very familiar contemporary England in which certain individuals find themselves possessed - or allied as is the more accurate term used by Alan a'Dale, the narrator - by numerous mythological or pseudo-historical heroes, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Robin Hood and the gang, and even the likes of Paul Bunyan across the water. The present day incarnations - or at least expressions - of these archetypes naturally behave in ways consistent with their respective legends; and so the Round Table has become the Circle, and its Knights get around on motorbikes, communicate by cellphone, and yet nevertheless employ sword and shield in their application of justice, honour, and chivalry. It's the kind of story which really could have ended up with a particularly culty egg on its face if mistimed or not handled absolutely right, so it's a testament to Purser-Hallard's not inconsiderable talent that it not only works, but is absolutely convincing.

As we rejoin our tale, Arthur has returned to reclaim the English throne, much to the displeasure of certain royals for obvious reasons - and delightfully plausibly written they are too. Intrigue, espionage, terrorism, and kidnapping ensue, foreign interests decide to involve themselves, and an old mythic pattern strives to repeat itself with those chosen to act out its component parts all caught up in the workings. Described as such it may sound like someone going for the Game of Thrones dollar, or at worst a template for forty-five minute helpings of episodic CGI with mediaeval types composing ironic self-referential facebook posts in between scraps with baddies; but it's really nothing like that, because it's a proper novel.

This also means that it expects the reader to pay attention, which is why I experienced some confusion. It's been a while since I read The Pendragon Protocol and The Locksley Exploit, and I've never been particularly well versed in Arthurian lore, so I experienced occasional difficulties keeping track of certain details through failing to fully appreciate their significance. Nevertheless, this presented no significant obstacle, either to my being able to follow the narrative or to enjoy it, and if anything, the undercurrent of intrigue served as an inducement to read on; so in other words, if I found myself sporadically lost, it remained a pleasure; and it remained a pleasure because Trojans is very conspicuously about something more than just keeping you busy for a couple of hours a day.

Were it a simple matter to summarise what Devices has been about in a few sentences, there probably wouldn't have been any need for it to clock up such a page count, but at the root of it all seems to be a debate about morality, specifically about doing the right thing and whether such choices can be codified as ideology. Here we have the Circle and the Green Chapel as England's two principal upholders of what is generally believed to be right, but they are essentially at odds with one another whilst driven by more or less identical goals. The difference is that one represents ingrained authority, tradition and even perhaps dogma, and as such I'm tempted to regard the Circle as an allegory for certain aspects of organised religion.

'I inherited the code of honour, I didn't make it. But it's the code I have to live by now, or any claim I have to rule this country goes out of the window. And then... there'd be another war, at least. And I honestly think that would destroy us.'

Robin Hood's Green Chapel on the other is wild, anarchic, and pretty much making it up as it goes along.

'People tell stories, not the other way round. The devices forget that we made them, not they us.'

Given the mythological origin of many of the characters manifest here, the Devices trilogy also serves as a commentary upon the quality and value of the tales we tell - a theme which generally seems to have become quite popular of late, but is more than justified here by what seems like fairly profound philosophical depth, or at least more so than Alan Moore recasting Harry Potter as the Antichrist.

In certain respects it might be considered quite a tough book, given all that it has to say about English culture at this end of the twenty-first century, the responsibility of a government to its people and to the individual, and even to those ways of thinking which have fuelled the popularity of Brexit; and yet it's a breeze, and there are even jokes. As someone or other is quoted as having observed on the back cover, Philip Purser-Hallard really is a best kept secret, and I have a feeling it can't be for too much longer.

Monday, 24 July 2017

The Shape of Things


Damon Knight (editor) The Shape of Things (1965)
I still find it hard to leave one of these on the shelf, which is partially nostalgia for anthologies such as this more or less having been my introduction to science-fiction which wasn't based on a TV show or else written by Philip K. Dick. Also, there's the exciting promise of getting something you didn't expect, of not really knowing quite what the fuck will happen once you get between the covers. I really don't know how anyone can resist.

Of course, these days there's also the appeal of revisiting what have become old favourites, but it's the surprises which keep me coming back, and not least because there are still surprises to be had. In this case one big one turns out to be The New Reality by Charles L. Harness. I don't recall having heard of the guy and I know nothing about him, but The New Reality is absolutely top shelf material, notable as a version of reality as construct within the eye of the beholder of some vintage, predating all those recent revisitations of the theme, and even predating the likes of Dick's Eye in the Sky. I'm sure Harness himself was only riffing on some previous telling of the story, one I've probably read and forgotten, but nevertheless he makes the convention his own.

As with any anthology, there are a couple which don't quite make the grade, but with this one the good stuff is of such quality as to render the duds forgiveable; and the good stuff from Henry Kuttner, Murray Leinster, Theodore Sturgeon, and Ray Bradbury are all very good indeed. Also, it's nice to read Knight's introduction to van Vogt's Dormant and to find that he did, on occasion, have a good word for the guy after all; so, very satisfying, all round.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

The Multiversity


Grant Morrison etc. The Multiversity (2015)
I know I said I was getting a bit tired of self-aware comic books pretending that a drawing of a man in a cape is just a different level of reality because of something a theoretical physicist said whilst off his tits on special brew, but sod it - Grant Morrison, for all his faults is occasionally great, and Captain Carrot was on the cover of the first issue. It seemed worth a punt.

I never read Crisis on Infinite Earths so most stuff about the layered realities of the DC universe has been lost upon me, and Final Crisis was incomprehensible. I'm not really sure what this one is supposed to do either, but on the assumption that Crisis happened so as to keep us from having to read about Krypto the Superdog, then Multiversity seems to reverse that particular act of po-faced revisionism and is therefore a good thing. Roughly speaking it seems to be a mash up of Morrison's Zenith and Alan Moore's 1963, or at least has elements inevitably in common with both. We have a load of alternate realities, some of them fairly absurd, under attack by something vaguely Lovecraftian from outside; in addition to which it's all massively self-referential with characters attempting to work out what's going on by reading earlier or later issues of the comic in which they appear. It's not actually big or significantly clever, but even this is acknowledged in online potshots which become caught up in the narrative.
Yet another comic-about-comics treatise retreading the same tired themes.

Ordinarily I'd agree, but what's different this time is that it just about has a story - albeit one in which individual chapters could probably be read in any order - and that it's a hell of a lot of fun.

Multiversity first appeared as a series of loosely related issues of comic books set in different parts of its reality, allowing for a great deal of horseplay. My favourite iteration is probably The Just, set on a world in which Superman's robot legion has rendered caped crime fighters redundant, leaving their offspring to lives of super-powered boredom and killing time; but equally enjoyable is the obligatory trawl through the history of superhero comics rendered in stylistic tribute to Siegel, Shuster, Kane, Kirby and all of the usual suspects. Morrison's Alan Moore fixation is expressed as an issue focused on the Charlton comics characters which inspired Watchmen, and which is clearly a comment on Watchmen, although I have no idea what it's actually saying. We also get Marvel's Avengers with the plates switched and a thinly disguised version of Erik Larsen's Savage Dragon, which is amusing if you like that sort of thing, and happily I do in this instance; and whilst I'm over-thinking such things, I'm sure I recall the evil one-eyed egg with bat wings as one of Dorothy's imaginary enemies from Morrison's version of Doom Patrol.

Multiversity is probably deep, meaningful, and stuffed to the gills with references I didn't get, but it doesn't actually have much in the way of story if you look closely; which isn't a problem because Grant Morrison seems to be at his best when he's all surface and can keep himself from mentioning Aleister bloody Crowley every two pages. I'm not sure this is all surface, but that was how it read to me and I therefore invoke the same difference clause; and yet it is of sufficient complexity as to yield unexpected rewards upon second and third readings. This might be one of the best things he's written in a while.

Maigret Sets a Trap


Georges Simenon Maigret Sets a Trap (1955)
Ordinarily I bristle and mutter at those who read the book because they saw it on telly, and yet here I am, because I'm nothing if not inconsistent. One set of laws for myself and a different set for the rest of you fuckers, that's how it works.

I happened upon a recent televised adaptation of this starring Rowan Atkinson, and while detective shows aren't ordinarily my thing, I was nevertheless well and truly sucked in. I vaguely knew of Maigret as a BBC series from before I was born, but hadn't realised it was based on a series of novels; and so I kept an eye open and chanced upon this, itself published so as to cash-in on a previous adaptation of the same thing starring the Singing Detective. Obviously I have no way of knowing whether or not this is a good translation from the French by one Daphne Woodward, although I'm going to assume it is based on how much I enjoyed it; so assuming that whatever I say can be applied as much to Simenon's original as to this one...

I'm a little out of my comfort zone with detective fiction, mysteries, crime, and all that stuff, and yet Maigret very much worked for me on this occasion. The narrative is tight and efficient, taking one straight to the heart of the matter, unencumbered by fatty tissue or any unnecessary fucking about in hope of getting a reaction; and the style comes across as clean and elegant rather than either rudimentary or pulpy, perhaps thanks to occasional concessions made to place and atmosphere in fleeting, yet arresting images:

All this time they had been standing up. At Doctor Pardon's suggestion they now went and sat down in a corner near the window, from where they could hear the sounds of a radio. The rain was still falling, so softly that the tiny drops seemed to be alighting gently one on top of the other, to form a kind of dark varnish on the surface of the road.

Similarly pleasing is that as mysteries go, this one seems fairly straightforward, indulging in none of the smartarsed labyrinthine plotting of modern detective fiction, at least as it is on telly. A crime occurs, Maigret tracks down the suspect, and then proves him to be the guilty party - none of this shit about some shop in Southend being the only place where you can buy shoelaces in that colour, and if Lord Ponsonby-Smythe, who famously loathes hard-boiled eggs, was indeed wearing his tartan jockstrap at the event in question, then blah blah blah...

Equally refreshing - at least from the point of view of someone who, like myself, usually only encounters this kind of thing on the box - is that Maigret is a quiet bloke who smokes a pipe and doesn't seem to go in for shouting or knackering suspects with a ball-peen hammer before chuckling oh dear - I see you've tripped, my little son. Indeed, that which is left to be read between these translated lines, suggests a thoughtful, sensitive character. For what it's worth, I am informed that views have been expressed opining that Rowan Atkinson's recent performance was somewhat flat in comparison with earlier, more emotional renderings by Rupert Davies or Michael Gambon, but I don't know - based on this one book, I'd say Atkinson pretty much nailed it.

Anyway, yes - very, very readable.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Erewhon


Samuel Butler Erewhon (1872)
Erewhon is the second great satire of the nineteenth century, it says here, the other being Gulliver's Travels, but personally I'm not convinced. It seems too much like a sentence referring to those two giants of twentieth century rock music, David Bowie and Nick Lowe - I mean Cracking Up was a fucking great single for sure, but let's keep some sense of perspective here, because Erewhon really isn't a patch on Swift. Aside from anything else, Swift was funny.

Erewhon transports a curious traveller to a distant and vaguely allegorical civilisation of that designation serving as a parody of Victorian society. It's written in an engaging style and delivers plenty of novelty, but I'm not entirely convinced it works as satire. It reads as though Butler kept changing his mind about what he wanted the book to do even as he was writing it. It starts well, with our man detailing the eccentricities of the Erewhonian justice system in which illness and infirmity are penalised whilst acts we might regard as criminal indiscretions go unpunished. Given the present state of healthcare in the United States and the NHS in England, the thrust of Butler's argument translates into contemporary terms very well, not least because he composes a weirdly plausible argument as to why the crime of being poorly might warrant a jail sentence.

Unfortunately, once we're done with Erewhonian justice, there are too many mixed messages and it becomes difficult to tell just what he's satirising. Sometimes he satirises by exaggeration,  sometimes by inversion, and sometimes we're left with the impression that he's entirely serious; so Erewhon lacks the consistency or the sense of progression found in Gulliver's Travels. The presumably Victorian monetary system is parodied through Erewhon honouring two unrelated forms of currency, one of which is exchanged at the Musical Banks - whatever they are - and I can't actually tell how any of it relates to anything.

Then follows philosophical mumbling, some of which reads a lot like a vicar's son asking Mr. Darwin if there is not room for the Baby Jesus in his fanciful theory. I'm not sure which part of any of it constitutes satire.
There are no follies and no unreasonableness so great as those which can apparently be irrefragably defended by reason itself, and there is hardly an error into which men may not easily be led if they base their conduct on reason only.

Butler was apparently quite the fan of Darwin but disagreed on certain fundamental points - points suggesting, at least to me, that he hadn't actually understood The Origin of Species in the first place. He seems to regard evolutionary theory and the process of natural selection as overly mechanistic, and Darwin's work is therefore parodied as The Book of the Machines - Erewhon's book within a book. The problem with this section, at least a problem for the notion of Erewhon as satire, is that Butler writes The Book of the Machines a little too well, makes some decent philosophical points, unwittingly predicts the technological singularity, and in doing so fails to deliver whatever the fuck the warning was supposed to be about in the first place.
'May we not fancy that if, in the remotest geological period, some early form of vegetable life had been endowed with the power of reflecting upon the dawning life of animals which was coming into existence alongside of its own, it would have thought itself exceedingly acute if it had surmised that animals would one day become real vegetables? Yet would this be more mistaken than it would be on our part to imagine that because the life of machines is a very different one to our own, there is therefore no higher possible development of life than ours; or that because mechanical life is a very different thing from our ours, therefore that it is not life at all?'

Erewhon is an interesting and occasionally thought-provoking novel, but is hamstrung by its own inconsistency. It may well be that, living as I do in 2017 rather than 1872, I have simply missed the subtleties which would seem obvious to the reader in Butler's time, but this still leaves the question of why Swift's novel works so much better than this one whilst requiring fewer allowances for the idiosyncracies of its vintage. Personally, I think there may be a clue in Butler's occasionally revealing narrative tone.
They have another plan about which they are making a great noise and fuss, much as some are doing with women's rights in England.

I appreciate he's not actually saying that women's rights are necessarily a bad thing, but there seems to be a somewhat insular subtext which creeps in at certain points of the narrative. He doesn't like change. He doesn't like anything too fancy. He's suspicious of big ideas. Erewhon isn't a bad novel, but I get the feeling that if its author were alive today he'd be the treasurer of his local model aeroplane flying club, his favourite band would be ELO, and he would have ceased posting on facebook following an argument in which he described Mike Read's UKIP Calypso as just a bit of fun.

The Silkie


A.E. van Vogt The Silkie (1969)
Including a couple of short story collections, this is my twenty-seventh van Vogt, and the one in which I finally understood what he was trying to do, or possibly what I think he was trying to do; by which I mean that I believe he was trying to do more than simply tell a natty tale or predict futuristic things.

As you may or may not be aware, Alfred Elton wrote some pretty strange stuff, so strange in fact that first impressions can often be massively unfavourable, as was mine. Initially he reads like a man drunk in charge of a typewriter with his weird, ugly sentences full of jarring images. The stories never quite add up, and are spattered with preposterous occurrences which don't always make sense or even go anywhere. In chapter two of The Silkie we learn that Cemp, an example of the species for which the novel is named, enjoys more than the usual five human senses, meaning that he has not merely a sixth sense, but an additional 184 senses; and if it were anyone other than van Vogt I probably would have thrown the book across the room. He pulls a similar stunt in chapter twenty-two during an episode in which the solar system is spontaneously gifted with a number of new planets, specifically 1,823 new planets.

I've witnessed a few van Vogt first-timers protesting that the guy can't write, or that he writes like a twelve-year old, or that he's making it up as he goes along. The last one is arguably true, and whilst the first two are understandable, I'd suggest that such criticisms are unsupportable given how much he wrote over how many years. If he really couldn't write, he would surely have improved at least a little during those four decades, therefore the reason that his books read as they do must surely be deliberate. That's how they're supposed to be. I've read plenty by authors who can't write, and it all tends to blend into one undifferentiated body of inept crap with the same mistakes repeated over and over, none of which resembles the writing of A.E. van Vogt.

So the previously mentioned Cemp is a Silkie, a shape-shifting creature which can take one of three forms - something close to human, an aquatic body with gills, and a presumably insectoid living spaceship with the ability to negate gravity. Cemp seems to be something like a secret agent in so much as that he has superiors and he works to counter the actions of those against whom he is in opposition, so on one level this is James Bond as one of the stranger Residents albums. As is often the case with van Vogt, the peculiar suggestion of constant motion combined with bizarre images and dramatic random narrative swerves made it very difficult for me to keep track of what was actually happening; but as is additionally at least sometimes the case with van Vogt, it didn't seem to matter because I was getting something from it, even if I can't quite describe what that was.

Except this time I think I've cracked it, and the understanding somehow presented itself during Cemp's speech in chapter eight:

'Entirely apart from my feelings of loyalty to Earth, I do not believe the future of life forms will be helped or advanced by any rigid adherence to the idea that I am a lion, or I am a bear. Intelligent life is, or should be, moving toward a common civilisation.'

A.E. van Vogt liked to keep his readers on their toes. He wrote using a narrative technique by which he purposefully introduced some new element or seemingly random change of direction to the story every eight-hundred words, and he wrote using images from his own dreams, communicating with sentences specifically tailored so as to leave a question in the mind of the reader. For the sake of argument, this might be termed a form of divination and as good a means of predicting the future as any. Where Asimov thought really hard about science and came up with rocket ships and space stations, van Vogt was essentially drawing random images from a top hat, composing the narrative equivalent of the automatic poetry of the Surrealists, or even William Burroughs if you like; and I believe he did this because the future is essentially impossible to predict, and all we can say for sure is that it will contain elements of something we don't immediately recognise.

However, there's more than mere prediction going on here. Given his interest in Korzybski's General Semantics, I suspect van Vogt saw the path to the future as necessarily psychologically distinct from human history up to the twentieth century; in other words that we would require new ways of thinking, just as Cemp believes we need to leave behind rigid adherence to certain ideas. So just as that which lays ahead is by definition unknowable beyond our capacity for prediction or preparation, and hence chaotic, we need to adjust the methodology by which we go forward, because black-white, on-off, up-down, beginning-middle-end thinking will be useless. Therefore van Vogt writes as he did because he's toughening us up, hoping we might learn to think in terms more ambitious than just building a few robots which make the same mistakes we've made; and I suspect he was hoping that in achieving a more flexible understanding of language and reality, we might begin to understand how the two could be related:

As Cemp remembered his universe, it began to interact with him, to become in essence what he knew it to be. And there it suddenly was, a dot of golden brightness.

Of course, this could simply be my imagination, my perception of a pattern which may not be present in the novel, or in the other novels; but it works for me, and it helped me get something out of The Silkie which might otherwise have seemed a complete dog's dinner. So that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

The Voyage of the Sable Keech


Neal Asher The Voyage of the Sable Keech (2006)
For me it began with Bioship, an entertainingly disgusting short story in a Solaris anthology which prompted me to bag a copy of Asher's The Skinner, an entertainingly disgusting novel, a big fat housebrick of smelly maritime science-fiction based on that poster of a small fish about to be devoured by a larger fish which is itself about to be swallowed by an even bigger one, and so on and so on. The Skinner is set on Spatterjay, a planet with a unique ecology based around a virus which keeps its host alive by almost any means necessary. The oceans of Spatterjay are home to galleons manned by salty and significantly mutated sea dogs who spend their days wrestling giant leeches or else regrowing body parts nipped off by the same; and that's before we even get to cored human slaves and all the other stuff you probably wouldn't want to read about whilst eating dinner.

The Skinner was such a treat that plucking others by the same guy as I found them from the book store shelf seemed a no brainer, as they say; but unfortunately Shadow of the Scorpion and The Engineer Reconditioned both turned out to be pretty dull, your average militaristic technowank; so when I chanced upon this sequel to The Skinner, the resumption of a nautical theme suggested it to be at least worth a look.

I read about a hundred pages engrossed and yet without much of an idea what was actually happening. Online friends and acquaintances commented that they found Asher's prose impenetrable partially due to his lousy characterisation. I could see their point, but I nevertheless persisted, actually going back to re-read those first hundred pages in the hope of forming a stronger impression as to what was going on with the narrative; and as it happens I seem to recall also having had to do this with The Skinner. One might suggest that finding myself obliged to re-read those first four or five chapters indicates a severe failing on the part of the author, and whilst that may be true, it's probably also worth considering that I actually enjoyed the re-reading as much as I'd enjoyed the initial bewildering foray. The problem is that Asher gets so lost in his baroque and squelchy biological world building, that it's difficult to pick out individual characters or events amongst all the slimy protuberances and circular orifices lined with plug-cutting teeth.

I seemed to be back on track, but with each hundred pages or so, progress became ever more difficult. I knew what was happening, but I never quite worked out why, or why I should care, and after a while the novelty wore off because I've already read The Skinner; and if convoluted, I'm sure it had a bit more of a story than this. It's not that The Voyage of the Sable Keech doesn't have a story, but it doesn't have one requiring six-hundred pages; which is a real shame because some of the concepts are fucking bananas.